You Are Here: Second Person Point of View

Years ago, I tried to write a poem about sex, specifically about the first time I noticed that sex was everywhere in the world. I had a collection of images all ready to go—the ghostly “FUCKS” that lingered on the bricks of my junior high school despite the janitor’s best effort to scrub them away and a vivid memory of the boys who used to hang out by the bus drop-off, undressing the girls as they walked by on the sidewalk. I had all these things, but nothing was happening in the writing department.

Fast forward a few years to the first summer residency of my MFA program where we were given the assignment to take a failed piece of writing, one we’d given up on, and do two things toward making a new poem:

  1. Intersperse our original text with found text from a book or magazine, a strategy designed to move the poem away traditional narrative 
  2. Change the point of view

We had exactly one day to do this, so no time to think. That’s often a good thing. 

First, I xeroxed a copy of a magazine article about bug sex and started circling random phrases that I started copying into my old, failed poem. At some point, I switched the point of view from first to second person and it was then that I felt it, the whole poem and I tell you: It felt like relief, like freedom. That wasn’t me who was having sex on golf courses or sleeping around but an unnamed you who was both narrator and reader, a you who is all of us. What ultimately shook out was a braided narrative that alternated between anecdotes depicting bug and human sex, with the bugs having FAR more fun than the humans. The piece was first published in Brevity and eventually worked its way into my book Sad Math. 

Writers are often warned away from second person as experimental, unsustainable, a parlor trick, a gimmick, or a poor second cousin to its more popular relatives, first and third person. To which I say, bulldoogie. Because they’re short, poems and flash/micros are experimental in their brevity, which in turn allows for and both welcomes and encourages experimentation. A novel or memoir written in second person – Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City and Mary Karr’s Cherry, for example– feel at times as if they’re pushing the convention, but in a short piece like a flash or micro, second person can as effective as a punch to the solar plexus. 

The downside is that a little “you” can go a long way. But there are far more upsides. 

For the writer of nonfiction, the ultimate benefit of second person is the distance it allows the writer to get from the events of the narrative—particularly events that are embarrassing, awkward, or painful. What might come off as self-conscious or self-pitying (“I’m too old for that dress”) comes off as aware, even self-deprecating in second person: You believe you’re too old for that dress. The narrative detachment provided by second person can also mute potential melodrama when writing events that are already shocking or dramatic. 

Best of all, because second person allows you to step away from your characters—yourself or your fictional characters—it encourages you to write things that you might otherwise leave out. The distance you get from second person allows you to be more observant and more understanding of why the character is acting as they do. And finally, second person can make a highly individual experience feel more universal; your reader becomes complicit in the great conspiracy of “you” and can’t easily walk away from the events of the story.